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August 21, 2007



"The only difference-- minor or major, I don't know-- is that I tend not to regard God as the first object of Christian belief: I've generally thought of order and other people seem to be epistemically prior to God."

To remind: what definition could "God" have without presupposing a universe of order and other entities?

It would seem that the God proposition is highly dependent, and does not uniformly arise without the individual being introduced to the concept. Some religions do not even have gods as such (e.g. Jainism). Anthropomorphizing the world, however, does appear automatic or natural to individuals of normal neurology. That's not to say derivative truths are any less true, of course: that we only know that A=C because A=B and B=C does not make A's equality to C uncertain or contingent.

I would actually say the most probable line of epistemic dependencies is order, then other entities, then anthropomorphic perception of the world around us. From the earliest ages children show an appreciation of regularities in their phenomenological world, but only appear to develop sophisticated models of other people as agents after they've been using language for a little while.

In any case, I have a hard time seeing discussions of the primacy of faith - especially those employing mysterious, opaque language I might expect from postmodernist literary critics - without suspecting that their true goal is not to justify one's belief so much as eliminate/frustrate the demand therefore. I intend this as both a criticism and an explanation. Criticism because, if true, it is reprehensible. Explanation because my perception obviously colors my view of the content of the articles.

As a side note, I take both postmodern literary criticism and religion somewhat more seriously than I did, say, five years ago - though that's not saying much. The main reason for the change is that, though I remain utterly unsympathetic to the descriptive and many normative claims, their embrace by eminently worthy people implies to me that there's probably wisdom in them than I'm failing to perceive. One item I've especially learned from conversations with Nathaneal is the connection between adaptionist design and tradition (including religious tradition) that I read in Dennett but didn't truly grasp. It has also gotten me past my prejudices against spirituality (broadly defined) as weak and unhelpful.

Maybe there's something deeper to this faith thing, too, but so far it seems, at best, worrisome.

Nathan Smith

Nato seems to treat God as synonymous with "anthropomorphizing the world." In this characterization there seems to be an implied explanation of what an atheist sees as the God fallacy: in interactions with other people, we get in the habit of expecting will, thought, emotion, decision, and other specifically human features; then we erroneously attribute these human-like features to the world, which gives rise to the idea of God.

But in that case, how does one explain the extent to which God is *not* anthropomorphic? For example, people makes mistakes and are ignorant of things, they envy and wrong each other. So where would we get the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent being?

Of course, the gods of pagan mythology are all too anthropomorphic, often deceiving each other and being deceived, raping and committing adultery, and are not omnipotent, sometimes fighting wars in which the outcome seems to be uncertain, overpowering each other, etc. One might say that we begin with such myths and later refine them (although: how? why?) into the Judeo-Christian idea of one perfect God... only that doesn't seem to be the case. It is an impression that comes because writings about mythologies are often artefacts from the decadence of civilizations; and indications often shine through of older and more sublime conceptions of divinity. Thus in the centuries between already-impious Homer and the absurdly cynical Ovid, Euthyphro and Socrates can have a conversation about God with which a contemporary Christian can feel at home. Where did Euthyphro and Socrates get such a conception of God-- a conception which they do not derive from philosophical reasoning but, rather, take for granted? A belief in God in something akin to the Judeo-Christian sense of the term is not necessarily unique to the Jews: some evidence suggests that such a notion was widespread, even universal, at too early a date to be attributable to cultural diffusion. Nor is it clear how such a notion could derive from "anthropomorphizing the world," since certain crucial characteristics of divinity characterize neither man nor the world, but transcend both.

I'm always struck by the ease with which children pick up the idea of God. Not that their ideas of/attitudes towards God are fully adequate-- even those of the wisest and saintliest theologian are not-- but the concept doesn't seem to confuse or surprise them. This is, I think, consistent with the idea that order and other people are epistemically prior to God: it is consistent because the meta-beliefs about order and other people are learned-- or whatever-- and extensively applied at a very early stage, even perhaps before babies learn to talk. If the idea of God is epistemically anterior to order and other people, it could still be acquired within, say, the first year of life. And since that time is buried in the amnesia of childhood, we can't hope to know by memory/introspection which of the three meta-beliefs comes first.

I'm not persuaded by Nato's logical argument that God must be epistemically anterior to order and other people. Nato asks: "what definition could 'God' have without presupposing a universe of order and other entities?" Correction: it's not other *entities* that we're concerned with, but other *conscious* entities, such as people: that there are other entities may be ascertained on the basis of sense-experience alone, or at minimum with the help of a belief in order that allows us to reify the patterns in sense-data. With that clarification, I don't see why it should be any harder to define God in the absence of order and other conscious entities than in their presence. Omniscience and omnipotence seem to make sense in an orderless world with a single conscious agent.


It seems to me that old pagan mythologies were created to explain the implications of erroneous inductive inference. For instance, it's very obvious that everyone has two parents, a mother and a father, and their parents have parents, and so on. So, the inference is that there must have been an original set of parents. After that, some may have inferred that there was only one original person that spawned the original parents. Then it's not such a large leap to suppose that the original person must have been very powerful, and may have spawned other non-Human things, maybe even everything in existence. That would make for a nice and tidy just-so story to tell the kids.

Regarding faith, though the definition may seem mysterious, its effects most certainly are not. It's clear that faith gives hope and confidence, and removes fear. It has been noted that some suicide terrorists appear very peaceful before they kill themselves. Now, in general, it's a very good thing to have (justified) hope and confidence, and a very bad thing to have (unjustified) fear. The problem with faith is that it defeats and discourages justification, and so the hope, confidence, and fearlessness are not always beneficially directed. That's where doctrine and tradition come in and play a significant role in society: they add direction to otherwise rudderless faith. This is probably why people of faith cling so strongly to doctrine and tradition, because they would be lost otherwise.


"Omniscience and omnipotence seem to make sense in an orderless world with a single conscious agent."

I don't know what would count as being "omniscient" in an orderless world. *What* would one "know"? Also, what would potency be, in an environment where cause and effect don't exist?

Even if we assume order, we're still left with a world inhabited by only one conscious being: oneself. I suppose one could imagine oneself omnipotent and omniscient, but given long enough, I presume anyone could eventually derive the proof that a system cannot perfectly describe the system which contains it* and realize that either one is the entirety of the universe or one is not omniscient. It may even eventually be provable that anything fitting the criteria for a conscious being cannot fully comprehend itself, implying that to be conscious in any recognizable sense is to rule out omniscience.

Omnipotence seems similarly problematic.

But I digress. I agree that God need not be anthropomorphic, and frequently isn't (much). My chain was that proto-people discern patterns, then they start to divide the world into objects-of-attention, eventually dividing them into agent and non-agent objects. Attributing agent properties is something learning informs, but it is also clearly instinctual. it is probably less basic than awareness of time, say, or object topology, but it is probably more basic than (the details of) sexual attraction or the desire to stockpile valuable non-foodstuffs.

The earliest concept of God I remember is of an invisible ultra-parent who, like my "ordinary" parents, was disappointed in me when I behaved poorly and pleased when I did well. I would speculate the desire to please one's parents is also instinctual.

*One might think one can do with with a fractal, but that's a misunderstanding.

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